Remember last year’s Memorial Day travel jams? Chances are they will be much worse this year

by | May 24, 2024 | Travel and Tourism

By DAVID KOENIG AP Airlines Writer

You didn’t think summer travel would be easy, did you?

Highways and airports are likely to be jammed the next few days as Americans head out for Memorial Day weekend getaways and then return home.

AAA predicts this will be the busiest start-of-summer weekend in nearly 20 years, with 43.8 million people expected to travel at least 50 miles from home between Thursday and Monday. The Transportation Security Administration says up to 3 million might pass through airport checkpoints on Friday alone.

Motorists travel westbound along Interstate 40, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

And that is just a sample of what is to come. U.S. airlines expect to carry a record number of passengers this summer. Their trade group estimates that 271 million travelers will fly between June 1 and August 31, breaking the record of 255 million set – you guessed it – last summer.

The annual expression of wanderlust is happening at a time when Americans tell pollsters they are worried about the economy and the direction of the country.

A slowdown, and in some cases a retreat, from the big price increases of the last two years may be helping.

Airfares are down 6% and hotel rates have dipped 0.4%, compared with a year ago, according to government figures released last week. Prices for renting a car or truck are down 10%. The nationwide price of gas is around $3.60 a gallon, about 6 cents higher than a year ago, according to AAA.

Johannes Thomas, CEO of the hotel and travel search company Trivago, said he thinks more customers are feeling the pinch of prices that have plateaued but at much higher levels than before the pandemic. He said they are booking farther in advance, staying closer to home, taking shorter trips, and compromising on accommodations — staying in three-star hotels instead of five-star ones.

Many travelers have their own cost-saving strategies, including combining work and pleasure on the same trip.

“I have largely been able to adapt by traveling at strange hours. I’ll fly out late at night, come in early in the morning, stay longer than I intended, and work remotely,” said Lauren Hartle of Boston, an investor for a clean-energy venture firm.

Hartle, who flew from Boston to Dallas on Wednesday for a work conference, plans to attend a summer family gathering in North Carolina but is otherwise considering trips closer to home — and maybe by train instead of plane.

Catey Schast, a nanny and piano teacher in Maine, said her Boston-Dallas flight cost $386 round trip. “It wasn’t terrible,” but it was higher than the $200 to $300 she paid in the past to visit family in Texas, she said.

Schast plans a beach vacation in Florida in July. High prices could discourage her from taking other trips, but “if I really want to go somewhere, I’m more of a how-can-I-make-this-happen type of person, as long as I have the time off work.”

As in past years, most holiday travelers are expected to travel by car – more than 38 million of them, according to AAA. The organization advises motorists hoping to avoid the worst traffic to leave metropolitan areas early Thursday and Friday and to stay off the roads between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday and Monday.

Motorists travel westbound along Interstate 40, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

“We haven’t seen any pullback in travel since the pandemic. Year after year, we have seen these numbers continue to grow,” AAA spokesperson Aixa Diaz said. “We don’t know when it’s going to stop. There’s no sign of it yet.”

There’s certainly no slowdown at airports. The number of people going through security checkpoints is up 3.2% this year. The TSA said it screened 2.85 million people last Friday and nearly as many on Sunday — the two busiest days of the year so far.

TSA predicts it will screen more than 18 million travelers and airline crew members during the seven-day stretch that begins Thursday, up 6.4% from last year. Friday is expected to be the busiest day for air travel, with nearly 3 million people passing through checkpoints. The TSA record is 2.91 million, set on the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year.

“We’re going to break those records this summer,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske said.

The agency, which was created after the 9/11 terror attacks, has struggled at times with peak loads. Pekoske told The Associated Press that pay raises for front-line screeners have helped improve staffing by reducing attrition from more than 20% to less than 10%.

Airlines say they also have staffed up since being caught short when travel began to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring and summer of 2022.

With any luck from the weather, travelers could see fewer canceled flights than in recent summers. So far this year, U.S. airlines have canceled 1.2% of their flights, according to FlightAware data, compared with 1.4% at this point last year and 2.8% in 2022 — a performance so poor it triggered complaints and increased scrutiny from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Even before the holiday weekend started, however, storms caused widespread cancellations at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the biggest hub for American Airlines. The carrier dropped more than 200 flights, or 5% of its schedule, by late afternoon.

Travelers make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Stranded travelers were not happy.

“Our flight got canceled right before the check-in. And now there’s no flights here until Friday because (open seats on other flights) went really quickly. We might wind up driving. Isn’t that terrible?” said Rosie Gutierrez of Allen, Texas, who was trying to get to Florida along with her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

American’s chief operating officer, David Seymour, said the airline has beefed up its staffing and technology in preparation for the seasonal rush.

“It’s a long summer, but we’re ready for it. We have the right resources,” he said.

American is offering its most ambitious summer schedule ever — 690,000 flights between May 17 and Sept. 3.

United Airlines forecasts its biggest Memorial Day weekend, with nearly 10% more passengers than last year. Delta Air Lines expects to carry 5% more passengers this weekend, kicking off its heaviest summer schedule ever of international flights.

According to AAA, the top domestic and international destinations are familiar ones. They include Orlando, Las Vegas, London, Paris and Rome.

So what about nervousness over the economy?

It’s important to note that people often say their own finances are better than average. In an AP survey from February, 54% said their personal situation was good — but only 30% felt the same about the nation’s economy.

That could explain why they can afford to splurge on travel.

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Rebecca Santana and Rick Gentilo in Washington contributed to this report.

 

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